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March 2015

Where I Found Wilf:


How did I find my characters and my story? I wish could say I was like David Almond who apparently one day went to post a letter and his wonderful novel Skellig just came to him and by the time he'd walked home he had the entire book fully formed in his mind.

But in my case the components of Crog appeared in dribs and drabs. My protagonist, Wilf, I saw in Newport Pagnell service station on the M1. He was a bit older than the Wilf in Crog and he had this terrible, sad leather jacket, and hair that went everywhere and he was smoking and smooching about beside a drinks dispenser. I remember so clearly just standing there by my car and staring at him--it was have been so rude! But I knew I wanted to use him.

As for Crog himself, I have always been fascinated by stories of feral children found in the wild living in forests, or running with gazelles in the desert. And I always thought that Stig in Clive James's novel Stig of the Dump, was an underdeveloped character. What if Stig had been able to speak? How exciting would that be!

The main part of this book is set on the West coast of Scotland where as a child I spent all my holidays. The family house that appears late on in Crog has rooms that come from my own grandparents' house in the Mull of Kintyre. The rest of the novel is set further north, in Appin, which is one of the most beautiful and, I believe, most mysterious areas of Scotland. 

This is a novel in part about history- and about what traces of the past still remain with us and how quite unknowingly we can carry our heritage with us. In the back of my mind as I wrote there was the terrible massacre of the MacDonalds of Glencoe in 1692. In the bloody history of the Highlands the Glencoe massacre has always stood out, not because of the murder of defenceless women and children-that wasn't so very unusual--but because the killings were carried out by government orders and the troops had been living with the MacDonalds for ten days before the morning when they turned on their hosts.

And Glencoe itself is a most forbidding place. If you come from the south (as Crog and Wilf and Ishbel do) the A82 loops west and you have the Great Moor of Rannoch behind you and when you enter the glen it's like coming into a gigantic, aerial tunnel -you have these huge, steep mountains soaring up on either side and a long desolate scoop of valley before you.  There aren't many ways out-and Crog and Wilf and Ishbel escape up the same route into the hidden valley which the Macdonalds fleeing from the soldiers used over 300 years ago.

When I started writing this book I only had the vaguest idea of what might eventually happen to my characters. But, for reasons that were not clear to me, my thought kept returning to the MacDonalds of Glencoe. I was also aware that, for all their highland lore of honour and fealty, the MacDonalds had been professional cattle raiders -- really a bunch of bandits and thieves. And Wilf's family, the MacGregors, were an outlawed clan with an even reputation worse reputation for lawlessness and thievery-though, interestingly, Wilf's immediate family weren't poor (far from it!) and so he didn't need to steal.

Then, on a muddy walk with a friend, I had one of those cloudburst moments and saw where my story was going. Now it was clear why the story of the MacDonalds kept coming back to me and I finally understood what I was writing. It was as if I had found the last filament in a piece of rope. Now I knew I had all the parts. I also knew that, like rope, if it was to hold fast and to be true, my story needed a twist.


November, 2013



Writers don't do much, do they? It's others who have the adventurous lives. This was brought home to me recently when I had the slightly eerie experience of speaking to someone who is, very nearly, a character out of one of my own novels. I know this sounds odd-- but I can explain.

Mission Telemark pbA couple of years ago I wrote a children's adventure story called Mission Telemark. The novel is based on true events - on the extraordinary exploits of some Norwegian agents who the Allies parachuted into the Telemark region of occupied Norway in the winter of 1942. They were bound on a secret sabotage mission to prevent Hitler from being able to making an atomic bomb.

Their adventure involved extreme feats of courage and endurance. The agents had to ski across the frozen, arctic wastes of the Hardanger mountain plateau. Then, after months living in a tiny wooden summer hut in the mountains and surviving off reindeer meat, they scaled cliffs by night and launched their attack on Vemork power station where 'heavy water,' an essential ingredient for making nuclear weapons, was being manufactured. The mission was successful - Hitler's heavy water supplies were destroyed and, amazingly, no one was killed or seriously wounded.

This extraordinary raid gave me the bones for a wonderful adventure story. The setting also gave me the opportunity to be a bit nerdy about snow holes and different models of Second World guns and vintage spying aides, such as watches that were really compasses and dead rats stuffed with explosives. (During WW the British really did manufacture explosive rats).

But in order to make a satisfying read for children I also took some liberties with the real story. In particular, I included a girl in the mission. (Why should boys have all the adventures?) I made my girl character - she is called Ase - small, dark, fierce and incredibly fiery. She is also very brave and, being a competition gymnast, keeps ferociously fit. When confronted with a bear, she just does a back flip to discombobulate the animal.

Then, this week, an equally redoubtable but REAL female with a similar taste for adventure bounced into my life. I've been speaking to Lucy Shepherd, a film production student at York University, who was the only woman to take part in a trip earlier this year which retraced the route taken by the original Telemark heroes.  The group, headed by ex SAS captain Neil Laughton, spent nine days skiing across the frozen Hardanger plateau and camping in minus 20 degrees centigrade. They were raising money for the Royal Marines Charitable Trust.

Lucy ShepherdLucy Shepherd twoLucy Shepherd 3

Lucy describes herself as 'enthusiastic, tenacious and driven.' She is tall and blond and doesn't, of course, look at all like my Ase. But, just like my character, Lucy is extremely fit (she thinks nothing of running 10 miles around York) and enjoys physically arduous, high adrenalin experiences. She has skied exactly the same route that I wrote of in my novel. She has visited the same huts, and experienced the same cold. Of course, compared with the original Telemark heroes and my adventurers, some things have been easier and safer for Lucy and her companions - there aren't German soldiers hunting them down and the group travelled with sat nav, ration packs, and avalanche probes.

But other elements of the journey have remained very much the same. For days and days Lucy lived in the same clothes, putting her boots (in her case just the boot liners) into her sleeping bag every night and peeing into bottles when it was too cold to go out.

On the journey Lucy tells me she heard the terrible bellowing sound of a lake of ice cracking beneath her, an experience Ase undergoes in my novel. Lucy also had to climb hills of soft snow pulling a sledge and feeling it trying to tug her back down the slope. She even tasted 'reindeer moss' -the semi-digested stomach contents of a dead reindeer which was a food the Telemark saboteurs relied upon for vitamin C.

Most people can't describe the experience of eating reindeer moss without swearing, but Lucy just murmurs, 'It's like off cheese, or off yoghurt.'

I ask her what surprised her most about her trip. I'm expecting her to remark on the horribleness of having your nose run and turn into a mini glacier on your upper lip. Or maybe she will tell me about the about the awfulness of reconstituted food? But Lucy rises above the indignities of arctic living conditions. She says, 'I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Cross country skiing in good weather is lovely.'

Next year Lucy is hoping to join an expedition to take wounded service men and women paramotoring (that means paragliding with an engine on your back ) from Mount Kenya to Mount Kilimanjaro.

Hats off to her.

If you want to see Lucy's film about renacting Mission Telemark please click here. And click here for her latest film project.